Untitled serial

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Untitled serial

Samuel Marshall
Part 12

She pushed past Arras and bent down to grab the heavy sack, almost knocking over a spade that leant precariously by the stone wall. With some effort, she dragged the weight over to the entrance, elbowed Jenna ungently out of the way, and set it into place against the door.

The effort triggered a sudden memory, grain-sacks she’d been unloading on the morning she first brought that letter to Mayor Gifford, the day this had all started. At least she didn’t have to do that kind of hard work for the time being. Life could be worse. Much worse.

‘Well?’ she asked, seeing the two of them still standing uncertainly.

‘I can’t–’ Arras began.

‘Aye, aye. Ye can’t see.’ She sighed, guided the two of them to one of the makeshift benches, and took the other for herself.

‘Thank you,’ Jenna said.

For being shouted at, sworn at, and finally pushed around? ‘Ye’re wasted as a priestess,’ Rowena said tiredly. ‘Ye should be a fucking saint.’

Jenna laughed; beside her, Arras drew breath sharply. Rowena had sworn again, she realised, and they were still inside a graveyard… no doubt the boy was timid of such things.

White light seared for one instant through every crack in the walls and roof, making her jump. Thunder crashed after, rumbling angrily overhead.

‘Rowena,’ Arras pleaded nervously, after the echoes died away, ‘please don’t swear again.’

She shrugged, unsettled. ‘I’ll try to curb me tongue.’

They fell silent for several minutes. Lightning flashed thrice more, the last time seeming further distant, but rain still battered the lean-to. She glanced around the room, making sense of the dim shadows. Gardening equipment; a pile of blank headstones; broken ones, perhaps for repair. Nothing of particular value, but the tools might be worth enough to keep locked.

Who would brave whatever curses might result, to steal a grave-digger’s spade? she thought; then half-laughed at herself. She would, of course, if she’d been a thief.

‘Where did you learn to pick locks?’ Arras asked, as if reading her thoughts.

She shrugged, glancing briefly to her right. He was barely visible in the darkness beside her, a shapeless bundle of human and cloth, little more than a shadow. Light glittered faintly from his eyes.

She returned her gaze to the dirt floor. ‘At home. There was a boy used to play wi’ me, an’ taught me how.’

‘What happened to him?’ Jenna wondered, her soft low-pitched tones cutting under the rattle of rain.

‘Somebody saw him thieving. He ran out of town the same day… never saw him again.’


‘Me mother found I’d been opening locks meself, then. Made me promise never to do it.’

Her mother been apoplectic, Rowena remembered, that furious, contorted face burned into her eleven-year-old memory. ‘But I never took nothing!’ she’d objected then, more or less truthfully. It hadn’t helped.

‘You just broke your promise,’ Arras pointed out.

Rowena half-laughed, surprised. ‘Hah! So I did. Never really meant it to begin with, but…’ She shrugged. ‘Kept it until now, anyway.’

The storm’s ferocity had dropped; rain pattered lightly against the roof. Rowena yawned, felt her eyes begin to droop. Lethargy spread gradually through her. I can’t sleep here, she thought tiredly…

…and jerked awake suddenly, chilly with damp clothes, sprawled sideways half-on the crate and wondering for a moment where she was. It came back to her quickly and she sat up, ignoring protesting muscles. The rain had almost stopped, leaving room for silence. She could hear breathing; Arras, the priestess. A quick glance showed both of them sitting upright, awake, on the trunk beside. A strange sense hung in the air, as if a conversation had been interrupted, or they waited for her to speak.

‘Aye, I’m awake,’ she muttered grudgingly, shivering. Bleary-eyed and still exhausted, she felt none the better for the brief nap, if brief it had been. ‘How long?’

‘About an hour.’ Arras glanced nervously at her. ‘We thought you needed a rest…’

We, is it now?’ She scowled, pointed upward. ‘Rain’s stopped. D’ye fancy spending the night here? Else we should move on.’

‘It isn’t far to town,’ Jenna said. The priestess’s stomach chose that moment to growl soft complaint, and she laughed. ‘Goodness! I must be hungry.’

‘Well, then.’ Rowena stood sharply, ignoring her tiredness, and reached down for the pack she’d left beside. She slipped her arms into the straps; it wasn’t much of a burden, being mostly empty. ‘Come on.’

She shoved aside the sack that blocked the door, and pulled it open onto the fresh, evening air. Now that the storm had blown past, the weather seemed utterly changed; overhead, a wide patch of open sky shone deep indigo with the remains of daylight. Lancir was clearly visible above the graveyard walls, its hill wrapped in a layered sunset of pink and gold. The hour was earlier than she’d expected, perhaps because the storm had made everything so dark before.

‘Will you lock the door again?’ Jenna asked, soft-voiced. ‘We’ll keep watch.’

It’d be funny to get caught illicitly locking the shed, Rowena thought sarcastically, and had half a mind to refuse; but there was no particular reason to fear discovery. Cemeteries weren’t popular destinations, at dusk. She knelt by the door, working at the keyhole, while Arras and Jenna stood close at her back. Both of them fairly towered above her, effectively concealing her from sight even if anyone were in a position to see.

It took a little longer this time, fiddling at the mechanism with hands grown stiff with cold, but eventually the lock slid home with a solid click. There. Now any potential spade-thieves would be defeated.

She touched a hand to her cloak, where the breast pocket would be, in a sudden burst of fear that the message might have been lost; but no, it remained right where she’d left it, the small cylinder pressing into her scrawny flesh. Stupid time to check, of course, after locking the door.

‘Done,’ she muttered anyway, standing tiredly and stretching legs grown cramped by the cold.

‘Thank you,’ the priestess offered.

Rowena ignored her, strode past the pair of them toward the nearby path. The grass squelched under her feet, still sodden with the rain, and water puddled around the track. Even so it seemed a more pleasant route, and very much shorter, now that she could see the whole of it from one end of it to the other.

She reached the gate in a few minutes, undid the latch, and swung it carefully inward. The high graveyard wall concealed the road from view… she put her shoulder against it and peered round each corner, east and then –

At once she ducked back, seeking the shadows. People approached from the west, a small group. She didn’t think they’d seen her, but…

A touch brushed Rowena’s shoulder and she turned, glancing up to see the priestess. Jenna smiled in reassurance and – without a word – breezed on through the open gate.

‘Better follow,’ Arras said.


They exchanged helpless glances and stepped out of the wall’s protection, trailing in the priestess’s wake. The four men who approached were clearly visible, now; craftsmen or wealthier farmers, to judge by their dress, returning home from some business in the town. They didn’t look like assassins; even so, they might well enquire what business Rowena had in a graveyard at nightfall, and she didn’t know what to answer.

‘Good eve,’ Jenna said politely, at the strangers’ approach.

The group paused, amid a general echo of greeting. One said, ‘A priestess, is it? What brings you to the cemetery at this hour?’

‘We travel to Lancir.’ Jenna lowered her voice. ‘This poor young girl lost her mother not long ago… as we passed it, she wished to visit the grave.’

The ‘poor young girl’, only a few yards behind and easily able to hear, resisted the urge to snort at that description. She stared at the ground, pretending grief, while strangers muttered condolences.

Jenna nodded on her behalf. ‘It grows dark… we must be on our way. Diella be with you, this night.’

‘And with you, Priestess.’ The men went past without further comment, tramping eastward; toward the nearby village, perhaps.

Rowena followed Jenna in silence until they were safely out of others’ hearing. ‘Why’d ye rush out like that?’ she hissed angrily. ‘Could’ve been assassins…’

‘Then perhaps they’d balk at harming a priestess,’ Jenna said mildly.

‘Doubt it.’

The priestess shrugged. ‘They weren’t assassins. Why did you feel the need to hide?’

‘Yer smooth tongue got us out o’ trouble, but who’s to have known that? They might’ve suspected us.’

‘I told only truth. We had a perfect right to be there.’ Jenna smiled gently, in the face of hostility. ‘Don’t let yourself become paranoid. It spoils your charm.’

Arras gave a surprised laugh at that, and –

‘Fuck off,’ Rowena spat, glaring. ‘Both of you.’

She stalked ahead, half-running, until the ache in her legs reminded her all too clearly that she’d already walked most of the day. The first buildings of Lancir loomed close ahead, stables and workshops beside the road. A handful of people walked the street, travellers checking on their horses or workmen leaving for the night.

Behind, she could hear the priestess hurrying after her, panting for breath at the unaccustomed exercise. Rowena stopped, span round, and watched with undisguised amusement as Jenna lurched to a halt before her, leaning heavily on her staff.

‘I’m sorry,’ the priestess said contritely, after she’d regained her breath. ‘I didn’t intend to make fun of you– Well, I did, but only in a nice way– That is to say– I meant only kindness. Truly.’

Rowena shrugged. Her brief anger had faded as quickly as it surfaced; stupid again, she thought, in passing. ‘Don’t care.’ She cast her eye over the priestess – earnest face, tall staff, mud-spattered robes – and gave a twisted half-smile. ‘Can’t ye see aught wrong with this? Here’s a Priestess of Diella, asking a nasty little elf girl for forgiveness.’

‘Nothing wrong with it at all,’ Jenna said firmly.

‘Hah. Ye’re strange.’

‘So people say.’ Laughing softly, the priestess pointed ahead. ‘And look! There, at the crossroads.’

Flickering light spilled from the windows of a decent-sized building that stood on the corner; smoke rose from its chimneys, streaming just-visible into the starry sky. A sign swung above the door – a golden star above a silver dagger, Rowena thought, straining to make it out. It must be an inn.

‘Thank heavens we’ve made it.’ Jenna patted her belly ruefully. ‘I just hope they’ll still serve dinner to hungry travellers!’

Simple things, Rowena thought, sighing. But Arras had caught up, and they walked the last few yards together, all three of them. And somehow, much against her will, she found in that a little comfort.